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Police promoting passage of Prop P

St. Louis County Police Sgt. Dave Kopfensteiner, on his day off, promotes Proposition P outside a polling place in Fenton on April 4. Photo by Laurie Skrivan, lskrivan@post-dispatch.com

Early Wednesday morning, St. Louis County police officials began a daunting task they’d long hoped to face, but weren’t sure they would: hashing out details of how to allocate the tens of millions of dollars in new law enforcement funding coming their way starting later this year.

“Our police department started at 8 o’clock today figuring out logistically how to hire the 110 (new) officers we’re talking about,” County Executive Steve Stenger said Wednesday, the day after voters approved a half-cent sales tax that is expected to provide some $80 million annually to the county and its individual municipalities for public safety.

Shoppers in the county probably will see the new tax bump showing up on price tags by October, Stenger said, with the revenue flowing to county government and other recipients by December. The process of hiring new officers for the county police department — 110 cops, in addition to the roughly 890 already in place — will start early next year.

“Those 110 officers are going to be pointed toward two-man cars, and the vast majority of them are going to go right to the precincts,” as opposed to desk positions, said county Police Chief Jon Belmar. “This 110 is really tan shirts, men and women out there answering those calls. I’m very confident we’re going to see a reduction in crime.”

Also starting early next year, county police officers up and down the pay scale will see their salaries rise, though specific figures are still being determined.

Belmar said the current base starting salary of $48,200 for new officers — a figure that hasn’t changed since early 2015 — will rise to above $50,000. He said he couldn’t say more specifically yet what that starting number will be, but he noted: “Anything that starts with a five is better than anything that starts with a four.”

In a Tuesday election that saw the defeat of a tax proposal for a new soccer stadium in St. Louis and the collapse of two school funding proposals in the Metro East, St. Louis County voters approved the police-funding measure, Proposition P, with more than 63 percent of the vote. Almost 102,000 residents voted in favor of it, according to unofficial results, compared to fewer than 60,000 “no” votes.

Out of the $80 million the new tax is expected to generate annually, about $46 million will go to St. Louis County, earmarked for expenses related to the police, prosecutors and county corrections. The rest will be divided among the county’s 90 municipalities, based on population.

While the promise of additional police officers has been a core selling point for the sales tax plan, Belmar said the salary boost also would be an urgent element. The department currently has an attrition rate of about one-and-a-half officers per week, officers being lost often to better pay at other police departments or the private sector. “There should be a demand by the public that law enforcement hire the best we can hire,” Belmar said. “To do that, we have to pay competitive salaries.”

The hiring of new officers and increased officer salaries will be the biggest part of the spending for county officials. Purchases of equipment for the new officers — including basic things like uniforms and more complicated new expenses like body cameras — also are on the list.

Critics of the plan have warned that there is nothing to prevent the county from using the availability of the new tax revenue for police as an excuse to move some current police funding to other budget needs, leaving the police with no net increase. Stenger reiterated on Wednesday his earlier vow that there wouldn’t be any such shell game. “That is simply not going to happen,” he said.

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